Same-sex marriage dating to 1990 recognized by court

John D. Roberts will receive the Social Security benefits of his late husband Bernard O. Wilkerson, after a ruling last month by a Philadelphia judge.

On Sept. 28, Orphans’ Court Judge George W. Overton ruled that the couple was in a common-law marriage dating back to July 4, 1990.

The men lived together for about 25 years, and were perceived to be spouses during that time period, according to court papers.

Even though they weren’t officially married until September 2015, the couple was in a committed relationship since July 1990, Overton ruled.

Overton’s ruling is believed to render Roberts’ marriage to Wilkerson the lengthiest same-sex marriage in America recognized by a judge, and the first same-sex common-law marriage in Philadelphia recognized by a judge.

Wilkerson died in December 2015, three months after the men obtained a marriage certificate.

The U.S. Social Security Administration denied Roberts’ application for widower’s benefits, on the basis that the couple hadn’t been married for at least nine months.

Roberts pursued his case in Philadelphia Orphans’ Court, where he sought to have his common-law marriage with Wilkerson legally recognized.

On Sept. 26, Overton presided over a hearing in the matter. Two days later, the judge ruled in Roberts’ favor. As a result, Roberts will receive Social Security benefits generated by Wilkerson.

Roberts, 63, had no comment for this story.

For about 130 years, Pennsylvania recognized common-law marriages between a man and a woman. In 2005, the state legislature abolished common-law marriage, but specifically allowed the recognition of such marriages that occurred on or before Jan. 1, 2005.

Recently, a few judges in Pennsylvania retroactively recognized same-sex common-law marriages, thus enabling surviving spouses to access various benefits.

Overton’s Sept. 28 ruling states: “It is declared that John D. Roberts and Bernard O. Wilkerson entered into a valid and enforceable marriage under the laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania on July 4, 1990, and remained married until the death of Bernard O. Wilkerson on Dec. 22, 2015. Their marriage is valid and enforceable, and John D. Roberts, as surviving spouse, is entitled to all the spousal rights and benefits that are afforded to legally married individuals under the laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for Eastern District of Pennsylvania issued this statement: “[N]either the U.S. Attorney’s Office nor the Social Security Administration opposed Mr. Roberts’ petition for declaration of common-law marriage. Now that the petition has been granted, any application by Mr. Roberts for Social Security death benefits will be processed and evaluated by the SSA in light of the court’s order recognizing the validity of the common-law marriage between Mr. Roberts and Mr. Wilkerson. Both the SSA and the U.S. Attorney’s Office are always guided by the decisions of the United States Supreme Court and that, of course, includes its ruling in Obergefell striking down bans on same-sex marriage.”